A month ago, a fellow emergency physician on Twitter lamented how alone and exhausted doctors and nurses are feeling amidst this seemingly never-ending pandemic. My response: “Not all of us. Many of us have a different mindset and consider the opportunity to serve our communities in crisis a privilege.”
A month later, I sit to write this letter from behind a plexiglass barrier in my basement, on day six of my 10-day isolation period for COVID-19. I have symptoms, but thankfully they are mild, more of a nuisance and an inconvenience than anything. And believe me, I appreciate what a blessing it is for my symptoms to amount to nothing more than a nuisance and an inconvenience, when so many lives and livelihoods have been wrecked by this virus. I write to my community to send a message from the front lines:
If you watch the network news, you’ve been deluged with stories about health care workers who are exhausted, beaten down, despondent. If you are a consumer of social media, you don’t have to scroll very far to find a tweet or a message on another platform similar to the one I referenced above. I don’t question for a minute the sincerity of the people being interviewed or posting these messages. There are plenty of reasons for many to be tired and frustrated. They have earned the right to express what they are feeling.
When COVID was first reaching Ohio, I was contacted by a very prominent journalist from the east coast who knew that I spent some time working in rural Emergency Departments (EDs). He wanted to interview me to hear about rural hospitals whose resources had been overwhelmed by the pandemic and the effect it was having on patient care and staff morale. When I told him that I had not experienced that in any of my hospitals, he no longer wanted to interview me. This type of search for an illustration of a pre-written narrative, along with years of watching the behavior of much of the press, makes me question their motives.
I also question the prevalence of this defeated state of mind. Since the start of this pandemic, I’ve worked in eight different EDs in Ohio and volunteered in another in New York City. I have witnessed none of this despair amongst health care workers. What I have witnessed is innumerable dedicated, caring professionals who are tough, resilient and happy to serve their communities. I have not heard a single worker complaining about putting themselves at risk when they punch in, not a soul complaining about the extra work taking care of so many sick patients. When our colleagues get sick and miss work, we pick up the slack and work their shifts, just like my colleagues are doing for me right now and like I have done for them over the last few months.
This is what we do.
This pandemic seems to have created a heightened level of respect, admiration, even pride in us as frontline health care workers. Recently, a disabled military veteran thanked me for my service, a humbling if not hyperbolic gesture from a real hero who had actual bullets flying at him as opposed to a virus. I am sure that the rest of the doctors, nurses, technicians, housekeepers, maintenance workers, advanced practice providers, food service workers and others would join me in saying that we sincerely appreciate the sentiment. But don’t feel sorry for us. This is what we signed up for. Based on what I’ve witnessed over the last several months, I am confident that the conclusion of my reply to my discouraged colleague on Twitter last month represents most of us: “I’ve never felt more of a sense of purpose when I walk through the door. That energizes me, and reminds me of why I did this in the first place.”
We’re here for you because it’s our job to be here for you, and there’s not a more rewarding job on the planet. Sometimes those rewards come with costs, but we always knew that. We are living our dream, serving our neighbors on their worst days, 24/7/365, and most of us wouldn’t trade it for anything on earth, COVID or not. I certainly wouldn’t. So God willing, I’ll be reporting back for my scheduled shift the day after my isolation period is over, just like every one of my colleagues have done before me, grateful to have been spared the worst of this disease, and grateful for the privilege of providing whatever comfort I can to those who weren’t as blessed as me.
Michael Pallaci, DO, FACEP, FACOEP, of Westerville, Ohio is a native of Niagara Falls and professor of Emergency Medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University and adjunct clinical professor of Emergency Medicine at Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Emergency Medicine. Twitter: @MikePallaci